Though the laserdisc game thing never tugged at my bobber as a kid, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the astounding animated short behind Dragon’s Lair II. Animated by Don Bluth, it has a tremendous mix of humor and darkness about it. I love Dirk’s constant lively motion: watch how he evades his enraged mother-in-law by climbing a snake, slashes a path across Carroll’s Wonderland, and the brilliant — absolutely brilliant — way that he removes a cursed ring from his love’s finger. I can watch some of these shots over and over and still marvel at the skill and hard work that must have gone into them.
Hello again. What follows is an excerpt from another short story I’m writing. Hope you enjoy.
Travis Is Fired
by Daniel Rocha
One: That Gorgeous Day in May
Before his mind cracked like a china cup, Travis Finn was the morning-est morning person you ever knew. I daresay that some you would have found him insufferable. Where most of us might groan and wince at the piercing buzz of an alarm clock, Travis always leaped out of bed like a Thompson’s gazelle. Upon landing he immediately set a course for the bathroom. No delays for the man. He never sat on the side of the bed to yawn or stretch. He never rubbed his eyes and pondered his daily plan. There was grooming to do; who could wait?
Travis had a tiny studio over on Richards Road, and when he showered, the place became a hot box of heavy mist and happy humming. He often sang a lengthy aria that continued after the water went off. He always arranged his toiletries in a ring around his bathroom sink, placed in their order of usage. The sequence went: toothbrush with Colgate Total, case of floss, bottle of Listerine, can of Barbasol, Mach-3 shaver, Skin Bracer aftershave, tube of Clearasil acne medication, bottle of facial moisturizer, a hefty hairbrush, and a tall can of hairspray. Travis wore his blonde hair in a neat flat top, but it was naturally wavy and he needed the spray to keep it from settling as the hours passed.
He set up his coffee maker to brew on a timer, and he always managed to step out of the bathroom just as the carafe was topped off. The mix of odors that seeped from his windows every morning was peculiar and strong, but never unpleasant. When you walked by apartment forty-five at seven in the morning, you smelled readiness. Travis’s landlord, a pillar of a woman with severely bunned hair, liked to say that it was the smell of a man on the move.
Today was May twenty-fourth, the Friday before the extended Memorial Day weekend. Most anyone would have been in high spirits today, and Travis was especially cheerful. You see, Travis had the enviable distinction of being a man who was truly in love with his job. It didn’t matter where the job was, or whose orders he followed. If there was work to be done, Travis was happy to do it. He derived pleasure from the very notion of belonging to a company, of knowing that his hands were necessary parts in a grand engine. Whenever he sent an email or filed a document, he liked to think about the myriad ways that he’d changed the day.
“That’s my handwriting on that file folder,” went his thoughts. “Many others will see it over the next few years. They won’t know who made that folder, but it wouldn’t have been there without me. At least, not in the same way.” He kept these thoughts close throughout each day, and they brightened his already luminous spirit.
At seven-thirty on this gorgeous day in May, Travis stepped out of his apartment looking fine and chipper in his crisp tan shirt and freshly ironed black slacks. The slacks were complemented with a snug black vest. His office’s dress code didn’t require him to wear a tie, but he often wore one anyway. Today it was a tasteful, copper number in a half-windsor knot that he tucked into his vest. He locked up, patted his pockets, and set off for the bus stop at the corner. He whistled like a robin as he strolled along, and those who saw him assumed he was on his way to a wedding or a formal rather than some drab, gray cubicle.
The bus arrived on the corner of Richards and Mabel, big and lumbering and loud. And late. The doors hissed open, and Travis was faced with his antithesis: the surly, bent body of the bus driver.
She was behind on her route, and she gave Travis an impatient glare. The sweet, gleaming smile he responded with only infuriated her. “Well, hurry up then,” she called.
She had little reason to be cheery this morning. Her six-year-old daughter, aiming for the container of milk, accidentally knocked over a jug of Kool-Aid and spilled sugary sweetwater over everything in the fridge. She discovered a nail in her front passenger side tire after she arrived at the depot parking lot, and her boyfriend texted her to say he was working late and couldn’t make their date for the night. One might expect the upcoming holiday to liven her attitude, but since her current work schedule required her to drive on weekends, while giving her Mondays and Wednesdays off, it was sadly meaningless.
Of course, Travis didn’t know any of this, and he boarded the bus with a jaunty hop. “A lovely day, isn’t it?” he said to the driver.
The driver only grunted back. The last thing she wanted to deal with right now was a friendly passenger. She would welcome a hostile one at this point, as it would provide an excuse to release her burgeoning anger. As things stood now, though, she felt alone in her hatred of the world, and that only made her hate things more. She drummed her fingers on the wheel while she waited for Travis to deposit his fare.
“I’ll be needing a transfer today, madam,” he said.
“You ain’t getting no transfer ‘til you pay,” she answered.
Travis laughed. “Oh, you are certainly right about that,” he said, and he dug in his right pants pocket for his five quarters. He found most of them. He had three, four, and then five of them in his hand, but the sixth one seemed to be hiding. He scrunched his brow and said, “Huh.”
The driver raised her eyebrows. “Don’t you tell me don’t have it, because you’re holding me up,” she said.
Travis held up a finger. “Never fear, madam. I know it’s in here somewhere.” Self-consciousness set in, and a bead of sweat rolled down his temple. He scratched around in his pocket ferociously. “I know I put it all in here.”
The driver knew that if she didn’t yell at this guy a little, the pressure inside her chest would kill her, so she loosened the valve a bit. “Look, I can’t wait for you,” she burst out. “Just go sit down and come pay when you’ve got it. God damn.” She closed the bus door and immediately hit the gas, throwing Travis off balance.
Unfortunately, Travis had removed his hand from his pocket and was holding his fare when the bus lurched ahead. He managed to close his grip around five of the quarters, but that elusive sixth one popped out from it like a desperate fish from a boat. Travis gasped through his teeth and chased the wayward coin as it rolled down the aisle.
He followed the quarter to the rear of the bus before it veered left and vanished behind the skinny legs of an elderly man. Without thinking, Travis knelt and stuck his face beneath the man’s seat.
“Whoa! Look out down there,” the man said. “You lose something, buddy?”
Travis squinted into the dusty darkness of the bus floor, but the coin had vanished like smoke. Feeling self-conscious again, Travis blinked and shuffled back into the aisle on his hands and knees. He peeked over his right shoulder to find that the eyes of the route’s ridership were fixed on him. He felt face heat up, and he knew that keeping quiet would only make it worse. “I’m afraid I lost a quarter down here,” Travis said to the old man. “You didn’t happen to see it, did you?”
The man started a reply when the bus struck a pothole, jolting its lighter passengers a few inches above their seats. The vehicle’s frame juddered and the suspension squeaked. Travis’s right arm slipped out from under him, and he rolled onto his back.
The man leaned down and took Travis’s arm in hand. He helped Travis from the floor and into the seat beside him. “Here, you’d better take it easy for the moment,” he said. “The way this driver’s going, you’ll need to wait ‘til she comes to a stop before you go poking around down there.”
“Yes, maybe you’re right,” said Travis. He checked himself over and grimaced at the brown streaks of dirt on his vest and slacks. He tried to brush them off, but they only faded some. He sighed and returned his attention to the man. “Thank you for that. Travis Finn, pleased to know you.” He offered his hand and a smile.
The old man received the pleasantry and gave a smile of his own. His tan face wrinkled in a way that was pleasant to behold. His clean-shaven face and white, close-cropped hair gave him a wise, gentle look, and Travis had the fleeting fancy that the man was visiting from his mountaintop monastery to study the Americans for a while. “Bill Stepanski,” he said. “Quite a morning you’re having, huh?”
“To say the least!” said Travis. The old man laughed. He had tobacco-stained teeth that reminded Travis of his grandfather. “I can’t keep a hold on things today.”
“We all have days like that, I think,” said Bill.
“I’m probably just over-excited. My thoughts are all over the place.”
“How’s that? You have big plans this weekend?”
“Just seeing family. My father’s having a barbecue at his house.”
Bill smiled. “How wonderful.”
“Yeah. Some of my uncles will be visiting from Nevada. I haven’t seen them since Christmas. It’ll be nice.”
Bill closed and made a long, slow nod. “My daughter lives in Sparks. She’s a good gal. I won’t be seeing her this weekend, though, sadly.”
“Oh, how come?”
“She’s working through most of it. She gets Monday off, but not Saturday or Sunday. She said she’d like to come by anyway, but I told her it wouldn’t be worth the trip just to stick around for a couple of hours.”
“Yeah, I can understand that,” Travis said. Somehow, he felt comfortable with Mr. Stepanski, and he was grateful to at last speak with someone on his morning commute. He’d been using this route for almost a year, and while he’d come to recognize most of his fellow riders, none of them had showed any interest in conversation. He’d thrown out icebreakers to people he found interesting, but he’d gotten no responses. No verbal ones, anyway. Some of them had smiled in polite acknowledgment before turning away, but most had avoided eye contact altogether. To meet somebody who actually talked to him, especially in light of his misadventure with the coin, eased Travis’s nerves. As he spoke with Bill, he felt revitalized, and in the space of a minute his embarrassment was forgotten.
Then he felt the bus slow down on a busy part of Cotton Road, a stretch where there was no stop. Travis and Bill halted their conversation and looked out the window in tandem.
“Is someone waving the bus down?” asked Travis.
“I don’t see anyone out there,” said Bill.
The bus pulled over and stopped. Travis scanned the faces of the other passengers but found them just as puzzled as his own. The doors didn’t open. Travis wondered if there was something wrong with the engine.
Then he heard a loud clomping sound coming down the aisle. It was the driver. She was marching with a purpose, and staring right at him. She stopped at Travis’s seat and leaned into his face.
“You think this bus is free?” she shouted. Her voice filled his ears, and her deep black eyes were fierce and frightening. Travis thought she was ready to kill someone. So stunned was he that he could only produce a confused grunt.
“I said, do you think this bus is free?” The driver turned and pointed to the fare listings posted near the front ceiling of the bus. “Look up there. How much does that say it costs to ride the bus? How much?”
“A dollar twenty-five,” muttered Travis. “Fifty with a transfer.”
“Yeah, and that means it’s not free, okay?”
Travis nodded. “Okay.”
“And you think you can go hide back here and get away without paying?”
The situation came together for Travis then, and his shock gave way to amusement. This woman had actually stopped the bus because she thought he was weaseling out on a buck-fifty. The triviality! The pettiness! That anyone could accuse him of such a thing was ludicrous. Travis couldn’t help chuckling as he prepared to explain himself, but the driver didn’t give him the chance.
She mocked his laughter then, and Travis’s amusement stepped aside. Behind it was a pulsing globe of umbrage. He felt something he’d never felt before: the sizzling hot desire to strike this woman across the face. Before his vision, his right hand was lashing at the woman’s right cheek. He felt his lip curl and his eyes narrow. He could feel and hear the clap of his palm against her skin. He saw her squeezing, angry eyes break open and behold him with pain and disbelief, and Travis felt very, very pleased.
Then the veil withdrew, and the real world showed itself again. The driver was still lecturing and berating. He hadn’t hit her; he’d only sunk into a very believable daydream. He gathered his thoughts like a scattered deck of cards and came up with a new approach, one more civil than what his imagination had conjured.
“Excuse me,” he said, using the placatory tone he applied when dealing with angry customers at work, “but you asked me to sit down until I could gather my fare together. I dropped one of my quarters before I get a seat, and I was just looking for it.”
“Yeah, looked like you were on a regular treasure hunt,” said the driver, and she gestured to Mr. Stepanski, who was frowning at his folded hands on his lap.
Travis sharpened his voice. “I was talking with this gentleman while I waited for you to slow down. The way you’ve been driving today, I didn’t think it was a very good idea to go crawling around on the floor.”
The driver backed away a step in mock guilt. “So it’s my fault then? I’m supposed to apologize?”
“No, I’m just saying that if you’d just been patient and let me get my quarter, you’d have your fare and you wouldn’t have to –”
“You don’t get to tell me how to drive my bus, little man. And you definitely don’t get to tell me to be patient.”
A battery of answers in Travis’s head adjusted their aims, prepared to strike back in a volley, but Travis called them back. Instead he calmly drew a small spiral notebook from the fob pocket of his shirt. This was his Current Events Journal, or “CJ” for short, and as his father had advised him years ago, Travis was never without it. “Keep track of weird things that happen,” he’d said. “So you’ll know exactly what to say if someone questions you later.”
Travis pulled the pen from the binding loops and flipped to an empty page. He scratched down “5/24: ANGRY DRIVER.” Then he said, “All right, and what is your name, madam?”
“My name’s not important,” the driver said.
“I see. Now is that ‘Knot’ with a ‘K,’ or…?”
Bill interceded here. His voice was strong and authoritative, but his palms were raised in peace. “Okay, okay, obviously this isn’t getting any of us where we want to go. Now ma’am, I know you need your fare, but this young man lost his quarter under the seat. I was the one who told him to wait until you slowed down a bit so he wouldn’t fall over looking for it. I don’t know where the quarter went, but I’ll gladly give you one of mine so we can put this all behind us. How’s that sound to you?”
The driver leaned back with a smirk. “All’s I know is he needs to pay up.”
Travis was mortified, though, and he stared at Bill with his mouth agape. “Mr. Stepanski, I couldn’t accept that. Please don’t inconvenience yourself for my sake.”
Bill laughed. “It’s just a quarter, and we can’t just sit and wait while you settle things with this lady. Here.” He fished in his pants pocket and pulled out a nickel and two dimes. “There you go,” he said, “that ought to take care of it.”
Travis leaned in on Bill with a confidential air. “Seriously, Mr. Stepanski,” he said, “I think there are greater issues than just this fare that need ironing out. This woman is accusing me of something ridiculous and making a scene of it in front of everybody. Who knows how many other people she’s humiliated? I think she should be reported to her superiors and taken off the route for a while.”
“Don’t you talk to him about me!” the driver shouted. “You got something to say about me, you say it to me!”
Bill took Travis’s hand and dropped the nickel and dimes into it. “Just pay it and let it go,” he said, and that grandfatherly smile reappeared.
Travis bit his lip. He still had more to say on the subject. Then he realized that the old man was on his side, and his idea was likely the wiser one.
He turned to the driver and held out his handful of change. “No, don’t give it to me,” the driver said. “You know where to take it.” She extended a hand to the front of the bus.
The whole bus watched as Travis stood up to pay for his ride. Embarrassment bubbled inside him. As he walked up the aisle, he felt something odd happening below his left eye. It felt like some imaginary string was tugging at the lower lid, making it twitch.
He approached the farebox and opened his hand over the slot. The coins clattered and rang as they rolled into the city’s coffers. The driver stepped around him and settled her behind onto her seat. She tore a small slip of paper from a pad on her belt and shoved it in Travis’s face.
“There’s your transfer,” she said. Travis took it and returned to his seat without a word.
“Well,” said Bill, “she was certainly strident about that, wasn’t she?” But Travis didn’t feel like talking anymore. His eyes found the glimmer of a coin that had somehow rolled into the aisle, and stayed on it, thoughtlessly.
Meanwhile, as the driver pressed the clutch, hit the ignition, and brought the monster to a thrum, she did something she hadn’t done in weeks.
She started humming.
One of my favorite and most memorable exercises in my old Creative Writing class was the impromptu collaborative story: the students at the front of the class would each start a story on a sheet of paper. After about five minutes, they would stop where they were — mid sentence or no — and pass their papers to the students behind them. Those students would pick up the stories from there, continue them for another five minutes, and then pass them on again. When the stories got to the back of the class, the instructor would collect them and read them aloud. I found the exercise to be a fun and surprising way to test our skills. It gave us the opportunity to not only create on short notice, but to work with the styles and ideas of our peers without any contact or planning. It was writing improv.
If you have an iPhone, you can enjoy this exercise anytime you like, using an app called Inkvite. Well, at least, you could. The basic activity is still there, but with the app’s recent update from version 1 to version 2, the goal of the community has shifted from having fun writing to BECOMING AS POPULAR AS POSSIBLE.
Inkvite is a writing app that allows online users to collaborate on stories. One user creates a story, chooses its genre and length, and then “inkvites” up to three other users to partake in the project. The users then take turns writing the story in 280-character (or “two-tweet”) chunks, and the story ends once a set number of exchanges is completed. It’s then published to a library for all users to read and rate.
The free app provides a good number of genres to choose from, including fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, though you can make in-app purchases to use more specific genres. Some of them are quite particular, too: there are genres for Vampires and Werewolves, and One Direction fan fiction, so all your preteen make-out scenarios are covered.
You can also write solo stories, but really, why would you use this app for that? Some folks found uses for solo stories, but as you’ll see, they have little creative value.
The first version of Inkvite was pretty glorious. I had a lot of fun putting together stories of all kinds, from comedies to adventures, enjoying and adapting to the surprises and plot twists that my fellow writers tossed into their exchanges. The app had no channel for communication between users, so there was no way to plan. If a writer and I found we shared a certain chemistry, we would simply inkvite each other to create more stories. If the story went in a direction I didn’t expect or like, I just had to work with it. I understand that this half-blind approach might be frustrating for control freaks, but the point of impromptu collaborative writing is to share the reins, to play catch with the creative process. Inkvite 1.0 taught me to trust and not to take it all so seriously.
Then, Inkvite grew up to version 2.0, and something went wrong. The library became crammed with solo stories that weren’t stories. Instead, we got mini-blogs from the users that discussed their upcoming Inkvite “projects.” They apologized for not being active on Inkvite due to classes and home life. They complained to the Inkvite staff for account issues that caused their stories or followers to disappear. They made “shout-outs” to other users for the great stories they were writing. Most often of all, they whined about getting low star ratings on their stories without any explanation. The actual stories usually end with YouTube-like postscripts asking for follows and five-star ratings and fan compliments like “STAY AWESOME, EVERYONE!”
What the hell happened?
It seems like internet communities are treated like giant forests of billboards, where the goal is to slap your face on as many surfaces as possible. I saw this in LittleBigPlanet, in which many of the level photos were dominated by a handful of players. I saw this when my cousin said she wanted to be a “YouTuber” when she grew up. It all smacks of a twisted value to me; the value of visibility for its own sake, of being well-liked over all else. Is being seen by millions really the most important thing in the world?
Is that what we really want for ourselves anymore?
Not far from my apartment.
It looks like success in writing is about building a “platform.” That’s the word I see everywhere now. A platform is a foundation of connections and achievements, and the more of these that you have, the stronger your platform is.
I don’t know how I feel about this. It sounds to me like writing has turned into a popularity contest. It’s not about storytelling, it’s about bankability.
This is the way things go nowadays, I suppose. It’s an age when any clown on YouTube can find fame and success simply by vlogging about what he buys at the store each day. Whether you’re writing a novel, reviewing a video game, or sharing the minutiae of your life, you are involved in “content creation,” a term so clinical and so far removed from artistic value that it’s depressing.
It’s most frustrating because I saw it coming. I didn’t have some psychic vision. I saw the successes of certain webcomics over the years as the internet grew. The most popular webcomics were wildly inconsistent in quality or meaning, but God damn it, they updated everyday.
That’s how you build a platform, I guess. You keep cranking things out. You stay in touch. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have anything important to say, or if inspiration has struck you. You just keep putting your chips out there.
Could I live with myself if I posted a daily vlog on YouTube that discussed excruciating trivialities with little to no value? Could I feel alright with that? Lord knows I don’t much like to talk unless I have something good to say, and then I like to be sure I express myself to greatest effect. If you want to build a platform, though, you need fans, you need to clamor for Twitter followers, you have to beg for YouTube subscribers. You have to be an online attention whore.
My friend Brenna and I had a short discussion about how we feel that human civilization has passed beyond the Information Age and moved into the Attention Age. Attention, it seems, is the most valuable currency of the generation. Now that we all have the capacity to plaster our faces on millions of screens, we’re in the midst of a veritable Attention Rush. Stake your claims now, folks.
Is that what writing is all about anymore? I suppose that if you want to make money doing it, then it is.
The world changes, but the results don’t change all that much. The most successful will the be the ones who love to show themselves off the most. I can only wonder how true writers — excuse me, “content creators” — like Sylvia Plath would manage in a day like this.
Throughout the last few years, as I’ve been contemplating what to do with my life, I’ve realized that everyone is afraid to do what they love. How do I know? Too many people work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, doing something that they don’t love to do.
Why? I think it’s because somewhere down their paths, they were too afraid. I think a lot of it comes from being scared of failure, being embarrassed or being made fun of. People don’t go for their goals because of what people might say or think.
I’ve been down this line of thought many times, and I’ve realized that beneath it all, the one thing we ALL are, is afraid. It’s our one and only major limitation to do anything. It’s the fundamental thing that keeps us all from where we want to be, from striving to be great.
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The following is an excerpt from one of the short stories I’m working on. It’s not meant to be taken seriously; it was devised during a couple of silly texting conversations with friends. Still, I’m having a lot of fun with it. I hope you enjoy.
A Nick Ironsight Joint
by Daniel Rocha
The dropship jolted and rocked as it settled onto the platform. The landing was no more stable than the rest of the trip. The whole shot was a breathless rush from the very beginning. Assignment, briefing, arming, embarkation. Nick was on his usual knife’s edge and didn’t mind it – in fact he loved it, lived for it – but even the principal was sweating in his seat during the flight, and that didn’t seem right.
The ship’s retrofire died. Silence. Tension. A green notice lit up on the ceiling, accompanied by a friendly tone. It was time to get up, get moving. Nick and his team, two other men from Solid Stone Security, unlatched themselves from their vinyl, cushioned seats and wordlessly took their places at the exit of the cabin. The flight had been automated; they had no pilot or crew to guide them. The ship’s onboard computer received its course data from a flight control center on Lakshmi, and it continually called home to analyze, calculate, and maintain its route. The system was trustworthy, and they’d arrived without incident, which gave Nick some much-needed time to study personnel dossiers. From what he’d learned, they were about to see, breathe, and soak up one of the largest, most promising settlements on the frontier.
Of course, it didn’t look too grand at first. All they saw as the gangway hissed open was the usual landing pad, a utilitarian skeleton of steel. The flooring was simple cement, surrounded by a series of square grates, and they could see the dirt of the moon’s surface beneath it. Yellow girders rose up to the ceiling hundreds of feet above, where three separate doors had closed behind the ship, separating the atmospheres. Thick cables snaked across and under the grates, tossed there thoughtlessly by maintenance workers. Tight, enclosed, and dim as it was, this pad resembled a mechanic’s garage. Clearly, this was not the usual pad for visiting dignitaries.
Nick and his team stepped down the gangway. Nick took a few careful looks around. Nothing unusual. The gate leading into the colony was several yards away. It was a giant, metal wall with a wide door at its base. To the right of the door was a small security station. A helmeted guard stood looking at him from behind its foot-thick glass. Nick turned back to the principal, who was still waiting patiently at the top of the gangway.
“Come on,” Nick said with a small beckon. The man, stiff, suited, and still sweating, made his careful way down to the pad. Nick knew there was little need for the show; their whole route had been mapped and forwarded to them by police chief Tungsten, and he was once a star CPO of the SSS. Still, none of them had ever been to Rama before, so playing up the vigilance couldn’t hurt.
They approached the gate, and the guard at the station nodded them through. The monstrous metal door, wide as six men, shot open horizontally at a surprising speed. A wave of air pushed out onto them, cool and crisp. Nothing wrong with the ventilation out here. The colonies had a history of iffy filtration, the result of slipshod contractors, and there were stories of factories failing because their workers weren’t getting enough oxygen. Not here, though. Nick pulled in a long sniff. It almost smelled sweet.
Before them, a long connecting corridor: brightly lit, excitingly white, decidedly more modern than the landing pad. No decoration though; that was for tourists, and these men had come on business.
The doors crashed shut behind them with the same amazing ferocity with which they’d opened. The men clomped down the hall in boots and wingtips, the security detail confidently surrounding the cargo. Nick noticed that the man’s bearing was slowly shedding its timidity. The proud, almost regal attitude that Nick had always admired in the man was returning.
The guy wasn’t really royalty, but he was close enough. He was Joey Brasstone, CFO of Huxley & Hollinger Resources. VIP. The man behind the Dyaus Pita Project, the money magnet that made the Rama colony into the remote jewel that it was. Before Dyaus Pita, it was a tiny set of science and observation facilities, beeping away in space. After Dyaus Pita, it was the fastest-growing metropolis in the quadrant. Developers stuck module after module onto the place. Immigrants poured in by the thousands, all of them craving a taste of the fast, thrilling, occasionally risky life that Rama promised.
Occasionally risky? Make that damn risky.
But for all the energy he’d poured into the Dyaus Pita project, and for all the money he’d made from its success, Joey Brasstone had never seen it. Not in person. Even after Joey’s brother Billy won a plum contract and expanded his business to Rama, Joey found reasons to avoid the trip, and nobody thought to question him. Sure, there was some pressure from the board at first, an obligation for the father to check on his child, to make a show of assurance for the stockholders. That pressure dissipated, though, as Rama’s population burgeoned, and the first ugly reports of spreading crime came back. No one at Huxley & Hollinger expected the CFO to head out there after that. The man didn’t need to risk himself just to put on a little show that wouldn’t mean much anyway. H&H would just hire some meatheads with guns to guard the capital, and then quietly continue to pull in the millions.
Head out he did, though, suddenly and unexpectedly, and now there he was, setting foot on that pulsing new world that he helped bring to life.
And he was escorted by three massive men wearing ballistic vests and armed with fully-automatic, electrothermal-chemical carbines. Their point man: a tall, tattooed vet named Nick Ironsight.
Nick’s earpiece lit up. “Agent Ironsight. Chief Tungsten. You copy?” A raspy, grim voice with a sergeant’s sharp authority crackled in Nick’s ear.
“Yes sir,” Nick answered.
“You are to continue through Ramasec station G7 and then report to Amberson Lab Alpha immediately.”
Joey Brasstone spoke up. He had his earpiece tuned in too. “Uh, what about my things? We didn’t bring them off the ship.”
Tungsten’s tone shifted from surly to servile in a flash. “All your supplies are being sent to your quarters via the colony’s freight rail, Mr. Brasstone, sir. It’ll be waiting for you when you get there. You just stick with those fine gentlemen beside you, and you got no need to worry. That’s my guarantee.”
“Okay, gotcha.” Mr. Brasstone stood up a little straighter than before.
The gruff Tungsten returned. “Ironsight. G7. Amberson. Tungsten out.”
“Yes sir,” said Nick. “Out.” He squinted his gray-blue eyes and marched. Just a little PSD. Babysit the boss man, do whatever Tungsten told him, go back home. He did wish, though, that he could at least look around the place before he left. Zip around the various districts, get a glimpse at the lifestyle. Just to see what made Rama so damn seductive. What made so many responsible people pull out their sureties on Lakshmi, and put them all on the line for a little moon on the frontier.
The men reached the end of the hall, and the doors opened before them in welcome.
The corridor led directly into a broad reception area in Rama Security Station G7. Everything was solid, polished metal, unpainted and tough. Workmanlike, but professional. The look one hoped to see in Ramasec, and by extension, the men of Solid Stone who filled most of Ramasec’s roster. A hefty, clean-shaved man with a chunky jaw and a buzzcut eyed them from behind a steel desk, and then immediately muttered something into his headset.
Nick led his group to the desk and made the appropriate introduction. “Mr. Joseph Brasstone.”
The man at the desk looked right past Nick as if he wasn’t there. He leapt into his greeting, his intonation heavy and rough. He hadn’t had much time to rehearse for this important arrival. “Good day, Mr. Brasstone,” he said. “It’s my pleasure to welcome you to Rama. Your room is ready at the Edelmann Lodge, where your luggage is already on its way. You already have your key, is that right?”
Brasstone produced a small plastic card from his breast pocket and flashed it with a smile.
“Very good,” said the guard-turned-receptionist. “First, I believe that you have a meeting with Doctor Copperwire. He’s in the Amberson Labs, sir. If you’ll take the stairs behind me and to your left, you’ll enter a skyway that will take you there directly. Do you have any questions for me before you go?”
“None at all, my good man,” answered Brasstone. “Thank you very much. Keep up the great work.” He even threw in a toothy grin and a wink. Nick smirked.
“Yes sir, right this way, then, sir.” Up the stairs he motioned. They clanged up a simple grated stairway, a thick metal door opened to the skyway, and Nick saw magic.
The skyway was walled on either side with hefty panes of aluminum silicate glass. Stretching out for miles beyond were the harsh, gray flatlands of Rama, powder-dry and cratered. Dusty, barren, and impossible to cultivate, Rama’s land was just a whole lot more of that dead and disappointing lunar desert.
What made it grand were the goings-on above it all.
On Nick’s right, slowly tumbling across the black expanse, were the golden geese of the Dyaus Pita project: asteroids, asteroids multifarious. They drifted and spun around Rama in their glorious ringlet, clustered like nomads on an ancient and trusted trail. To Nick’s eye, this ring was a broad, speckled band that reached across the Rama sky. The asteroids flew in their endless arcs as though hurled by heavenly hands, each one curious, each one strange. Some were stony, some were jagged, some were pockmarked, and some were creamy. There were asteroids that bulged with chunky mounds and sweeping hillocks. There were asteroids laced with twisting tunnels large enough to drive a tank through. There were asteroids that glistened and twinkled with a radiance unlike anything in man’s known universe. That so many sizable and dissimilar bodies could convene around this tiny moon was an astronomical phenomenon.
And more wonderful than that was the fact that each of these sizable and dissimilar bodies contained enough ore, enough precious metals, enough raw riches to destroy a colony, rebuild it, and then destroy it again.
On Nick’s left was another astonishing sight. A monstrous, purple sphere. The pulsing, storming skies of Rudra, the inhospitable gas giant that Rama orbited, made canopy here. The planet was enormous, bright, and near enough for the purple and gray coils of its unending thunderstorms to fill the eastern sky. Nick could actually see the cloud layer swirl, sweep, dissolve, and reform from second to second. He saw a tiny white flash in a pocket of rich violet, a lightning bolt that must have been miles long. It was hypnotic, unsettling, and Nick was startled when the doors swished open at the end of the skyway.
The station opened up its arms as they left Ramasec, and it gradually transformed from a claustrophobic workman’s spaceport to a batty tourist’s attraction. From one walkway to the next, things got a little louder than before, a little more garish. The simple humming of the churning filtration ducts was slowly covered by voices and footsteps, while stark fluorescent lighting was replaced by animated billboards and squiggly neon.
Nick lead the three men along their assigned path, one that kept them from the sight and slog of the growing crowds. They stalked down empty corridors and rode silently up elevators. They crept along a grated catwalk suspended over a small port plaza. Colonists, dressed as in the casual T-shirts and jeans you’d see on mall-walkers, traipsed between markets. These markets didn’t sell anything exotic; it was the typical set of duty-free distractions designed to occupy folks before their flights.
Speakers and projections blared. Some gave notice about arrivals and departures, while others dished the latest colonial news. New upscale residences were under construction in the south. Repairs on an overworked mag-freight line were nearing completion. Contractors kicked up dust over bidding practices.
Ads, printed and digital, covered any available surface. One of them was a pretty girl’s face with a splatter of brown drops around her mouth. The bold, all-caps copy simply read, “DRINK COKE.”
The catwalk lead them to a small door tucked into a niche on the third floor of a non-descript building. A green light beside the door winked on automatically, and they heard the lock click open. Nick pulled the handle and saw a small hallway floored with linoleum and lit intermittently with those harsh fluorescent lights. As the door snapped shut behind them, all the noise from the port cut away.
Clomping boots and wingtips. The long walk to work. The sheet paneling on the walls was shallow and thin, with some untended open holes, and beneath the cheap covering was intricate wiring, circuitry, and duct work. Nick reflected in wonder that even the tiniest spaces in a colony needed extensive connecting work to ensure that humans could survive in them.
At the end of the hall was a large freight elevator, barred with a simple, collapsing iron gate. The elevator to the storage spaces of Amberson Labs. Nick hit the call button, and the gate scrunched open with a series of creaks and squeaks. The group loaded themselves up, and Nick hit the button at the very bottom of the panel. The gate pulled shut. As they rode down, passing level after level and burrowing underground, Nick got the sense that they were dropping away from everyone else, separating from society, entering a remote pocket where secrets were sent to be forgotten.
“So, anybody got a smoke?” said Joey.
No one answered him.